As will be clear from other posts on this blog, we run our businesses and household on Linux and Free Software, and we needed a new machine for Helen. The days of great difficulty in getting Linux to work correctly on a range of hardware has thankfully long since passed, but it is nevertheless frustrating to buy hardware only to find that the hardware manufacturer had only the Microsoft market in mind when developing the machine. There are little decisions that make all the difference between effortless support for Linux as well as Windows, and making installing Linux more difficult than it need be. For years, the safe bet was IBM Thinkpads, and even after Lenovo took over the business, with some exceptions, Linux was well supported. However, now that I am only on the edges of the technology industry, I must acknowledge that I no longer have the the range of knowledge of systems on offer; I am much more in the position of an ordinary consumer. And the commercial landscape if you are in the market for a Linux laptop is quite confusing. Do you go for an entry-level machine, in the knowledge that it is most likely to use off-the-shelf components, or do you go for something decent, for longevity and ease of use, and expose yourself to greater financial risk of Linux is poorly supported by the machine?
The best option, of course, is to buy a laptop pre-installed with Linux. In the UK, that is really hard to do. The Lenovo on which I am typing this is available in other jurisdictions without Windows (or its cost), but in the UK, you have little option. So when the keyboard on Helen's Thinkpad failed, and the cost of replacing the keyboard was rather exploitative, it was time to find a replacement machine. Over the years, the long-standing business Linux Emporium was a good source, but many such businesses re-purpose older well supported hardware rather than selling new, and while that is an important market, it was not what I was after. Dell is also known for dabbling in the Linux market, but again, in the UK, they are rather luke-warm about their support for Linux. The "developer" range of Linux machines is crazily priced, and the implication that Linux users are all developers is a seriously outdated notion. I wish they would get their Linux act together as I have used some excellent Dell machines over the years. The web site http://linuxpreloaded.com was the next stop. This site lists suppliers of Linux-based equipment world wide, and in the UK, listed Entroware as having "a crisp, elegant line-up of Ubuntu laptops and desktops on offer."
There, the ideal machine for Helen seemed to be the Apollo range. With an aluminium chassis, 13" Goldilocks screen - not too big, not too small - and manageable price, it looked a good option. But who is Entroware, and was the Apollo as good in practice as it seemed to be on-screen? A quick search revealed a positive review of the machine and of Entroware at the "crocoduckspond", where the machine was described as a killer linux laptop. However, as readers of this blog will also know, a key element in any decision we make is how much power is consumed, as we are off-grid and need to ensure that power is efficiently used. Some years back, I needed a cheap replacement laptop, plumping for an Intel Atom-based system, for its promised power efficiency. Imagine my surprise to find that it was one of the worst power hogs, with pathetic power management options, and consuming 16-18w of power at idle. By comparison, this Lenovo, which is much more powerful, uses 7-9w. I needed to find out what power the Apollo uses.
Entroware's website does not have a phone number. They are located near Liverpool, and it seems a strange omission from the web site, but there is a "Contact Us" form on the web site, which I used, but received no answer, a real disappointment. So I added a comment on the crocoduckspond blog, and crocoduck him-or-herself offered to install the powertop utility and run some tests. She or he confirmed that the Apollo used about 7 or 8w at idle, which is quite manageable, and even very good. Crocoduck also responded quickly with questions on his or her blog post, and was very helpful. Thanks for that. Eventually, a decision had to be made, and by that time, Entroware had responded on Twitter, so at least I had some certainty that it was safe to order, and anyway, Helen was limping along using the Atom system I mentioned earlier and needed something better. So I placed the order for an Intel i3 processor system, with 8GB of memory and a 500GB disk. More powerful processors are available but we do not need them. The operating system options were Ubuntu Linux, Ubuntu with the Cinnamon desktop or no operating system installed. I have not used Cinnamon much, and thought I would go for that option. The order was placed before the Easter weekend, so for a week we heard nothing, not unreasonably, but given the difficulty communicating directly with Entroware, it was a long week. Eventually we heard back from them, offering a larger disk in acknowledgement of a slow response. I suspect that this is just the way Entroware does business, which is not unreasonable, and it's not wrong, just different, but it does make it feel like a bit of a leap of faith for a new customer.
Eventually we were sent tracking details for the delivery, and the machine duly arrived. First impressions were that it looked good in its sleek aluminium finish, with no noticeable flexing when holding it by an edge. It is thin enough to look impressive, and the only minor immediate note regarding construction seemed to be that the screen's external covering lacks some rigidity, though this is nit-picking and not something of concern. Helen was delighted. It really looks a lovely silver darling. Entroware sends decals with the machine, but does not plaster branding all over it, definitely a mark in Entroware's favour. The machine is clearly a standard aluminium-based Intel system, and is none the worse for that. In fact, that's what we want for Linux. The battery in internal, and there are no flaps or lids in the underside. Power, a USB connector and headphone socket are to the left, and USB and SD card slots are on the right, together with, I think, an HDMI slot. There is no onboard ethernet, an interesting development, as recently I realised I never used the onboard ethernet in my old laptop, and had even disabled it in the bios. But Entroware do supply a USB ethernet adaptor at no charge, which may come in handy.
I plugged it in and a standard AMI BIOS screen appeared before Ubuntu fired up and the new user installation process started. Everything just worked.
A small issue for us, but perhaps a bigger issue for others, is that it was the standard Ubuntu that was pre-installed, not the Cinnamon desktop we had ordered. This is no big problem, and if I really wanted Cinnamon, a quick "apt-get install cinnamon" would have done the trick, but perhaps for someone less experienced with Linux it may have been confusing. Anyway, over the years, I have developed a specific way of laying out the disk, and choosing file systems, so I intended to re-install with the XFCE-based Xubuntu, with which Helen is familiar. But I wanted to learn from a factory installation, which turned out to be very sensibly based on EXT4, and just a single partition (except swap, of course). So I familiarised myself with the machine in its Unity-based Ubuntu form for a while to get to understand it. All seemed well. (Edit: Mike Wilson. the co-founder of Entroware, emailed to say that this was the only occasion they have made a mistake with the installation distro, as far as he is aware.)
Rebuilding it with a Xubuntu USB install stick was quick and easy, and soon Helen's old machine's backup was restoring onto the new silver darling. I did not bother with secure boot but I believe it would have been straight forward to choose that. I made some other changes, such as silencing the bios screen, and then finished the customisations we prefer. In particular, Helen uses the kde application Digikam extensively for her photographic workflow, an important part of what she does. Digikam works well under XFCE. The Apollo turns out to be quick and comfortable, but the really impressive part was the screen. Photographs are deeply saturated and crisp and this will make Helen's work a greater pleasure and easier. The screen is non-reflective.
As usual, I installed the tlp utility for power management, and found that crocoduck's figures are good, considering we have a spinning disk; the machine uses 7-9w of power at idle. What is more, the entire system runs cool-ly, with no obvious hot spots on the aluminium.
All the function keys, including the one to cut the keyboard backlight seem to work. It's early days with the machine, but so far, so very good, and it looks to have been a good purchase. And Helen already loves it, which is perhaps the main thing, as without it she would not have her business.
Looking at comparisons, it looks as though the Apollo is not dissimilar to Dell's XPS 13 range, which seems a lot more expensive. Other than that, I looked at a range of laptops in John Lewis a few weeks back, and was assisted by an HP employee, who was as helpful as possible without being able to assure us of Linux use on their range.
In summary, going for a smaller company like Entroware was different to dealing with a global mega-corp, and that difference is by no means bad. Yes, it would be much more comfortable being able to contact them via the phone, but they did respond via twitter. And we need companies like Entroware to provide good equipment at good prices It is to be hoped that they thrive in this new market, where in many cases, the best answer is a good Linux laptop, like this one. (Edit: - Mike Wilson, co-founder of Entroware, emailed to acknowledge that Entroware plans to improve customer communication. Many of the concerns I had when buying the Apollo should not affect others.)
Edited to add: - This laptop now runs OpenSUSE Leap 42.1. OpenSUSE is a rock solid distribution that both Helen and I prefer (though to be fair, Helen just wants a reliable machine). The installation was as straight forward as always, BUT... I'd forgotten that the Entroware uses the Skylake chipset, which only gained kernel support from version 4.2, while Leap 42.1 comes with kernel version 4.1. While the system worked acceptably, the power consumption increased to 12-14w at idle. I added the kernel:stable OpenSUSE repository, and ran "zypper dup" which installed kernel 4.6 along with newer firmware. Immediately the power consumption dropped back to 7w at idle and the system remains solidly reliable.
Two month's later, and Helen is very happy with her machine. She often comments on the quality of the screen, and on some recent trips got a number of favourable comments from onlookers, suggesting that the machine looks good to others, too. A slightly bigger battery to get, say, 8 hours rather than 5 on a charge would be great, but that's nit-picking an otherwise overall good machine.